June 1, 2023

Green scene appeals to Roughriders’ Nelson Lokombo

Nelson Lokombo hails from Abbotsford, B.C., but nonetheless qualifies as an honorary Saskatchewanian. 

After starring for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, the versatile defensive back was selected by the Roughriders in the first round (second overall) of the 2021 CFL Draft. 

At this time of year, he is able to merge his collegiate and professional allegiances by attending the Coors Light Riders Training Camp at Saskatoon’s Griffiths Stadium — which was also his home field with the Huskies. 

“Being on-campus again definitely brings back a lot of good memories,” Lokombo, 24, said before the Roughriders’ final training-camp workout at the U of S. 

“I think about a lot of the games and even the practices and being around the guys. It definitely gives you a lot of gratitude. 

“I’m grateful that I was able to come here (and play with the Huskies) and I’m grateful that I’m able to be a part of the Roughriders’ organization and to still be a part of the Saskatchewan culture.” 

It is a culture in which football is ingrained. 

“It definitely means a lot,” Lokombo said. “I’ve learned a lot about the culture out here. It’s definitely different than from where I’m from, but it’s cool. 

“It’s nice seeing everybody — all the familiar faces and all the fans. The support that we get is crazy. Even at the university level, we always got support.” 

Lokombo gave the Huskies’ fans plenty of reasons to cheer during three seasons with the Canada West team. 

He was especially effective in 2019, picking off five passes in 10 games and amassing 197 yards of interception-return yardage. He scored a touchdown on two of those returns. 

As well, he recorded three sacks, four pass deflections and 39 defensive tackles (including six for a loss) en route to being named the top defensive player in U Sports football for 2019. 

COVID-19 resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 college football season. The following year, Lokombo was a prime pick in the CFL Draft, only to suffer a torn Achilles tendon in a players-only, pre-training-camp informal workout at Mosaic Stadium. 

After an exhaustive rehabilitation period, he attended his first Roughriders training camp in 2022 and ultimately made a long-awaited debut in professional three-down football. 

In 12 games as a rookie, Lokombo registered 13 defensive tackles and one forced fumble. 

A strong second training camp with Saskatchewan has led to elevated expectations in 2023. 

“It definitely is a big year,” he said. “It’s my second year playing and this is the third year of my contract. 

“It’s just another opportunity to show production and to show growth and leadership. I think those are qualities that the coaches want to see out of me and I’m just doing the best I can to provide that.” 

Head Coach Craig Dickenson likes what he sees. 

“I think he can play free safety for us,” the Roughriders’ field boss said leading up to Friday’s pre-season game against the host Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “I think he can play (defensive) halfback if we need him to and I know he can play all four special teams. 

“He’s going to be kind of a Jack-of-all-trades.” 

Another year of experience enables him to assume greater responsibility and become more proficient in a variety of roles. 

“I definitely feel more comfortable as a player, with the playbook, and in my ability to play,” Lokombo said. “It’s just about showing a little more leadership now and showing a little more growth and more ability to play different positions — anywhere the coaches need me to play. 

“That’s kind of what I’m trying to showcase. I’m just looking to help out any way I can.” 

That has been Lokombo’s approach for the entirety of his Saskatchewan football experience to date. 

“The culture from the U of S organization was definitely something that intrigued me,” he recalled. “I just wanted to be away from home and learn how to be independent and live on my own, so that was another important thing. 

“When I was getting recruited, I knew of a lot of the (U of S) coaches. They all had experiences as players and they all had that winning mentality. That was something that really attracted me to the university here.” 

For someone who grew up in balmy British Columbia, one of the selling points wasn’t the snow. 

“That was a minus, definitely, but I’m used to it now,” Lokombo said with a chuckle. “I got a couple of jackets for that.”